A Voice From The Isles:
The reading this week from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew, takes place on the shore of a beautiful lake, the Sea of Galilee, one hundred miles north of Jerusalem. It’s a remarkable place that my wife, Diaconissa Sylvia, and I have visited several times. Not only is that lake quite big, 14 miles long and six miles wide; it is also 700 feet below sea level, fed by the waters of the Jordan River. So when you walk around the villages of Galilee, you are often high above the lake.
I remember especially my first view of the Sea of Galilee. I walked around a curve in the road, and there before me was this beautiful blue expanse of water shining in the sunlight. Not much had changed in 2,000 years: the lake was still there; the sun was still there; and I sensed that Our Lord Jesus Christ could easily be walking up from the lake, rounding the curve in the road and saying, “Shalom, Emmanuel. Peace be to you.” That sense is still with me: Christ is present today in Israel and in the West Bank of Palestine and in England and in the United States and everywhere else in the world; and he greets each of us by wishing us peace. He has a plan for each of our lives.
In this Gospel according to St Matthew, Christ sets out His plan for four people—the brothers Simon and Andrew, and the brothers, James and John, the fishermen from two families, living in the town of Capernaum. Christ’s plan for these fishermen consists of a request and a promise. The request is very bold and very clear, “Follow me.” The promise is equally bold and clear: “I will make you fishers of men.” Christ wants me and each of us to follow Him. If we make that decision to follow Him, He will give us the vision and the wisdom to draw others to Him. How can that happen? How can we each learn to follow Christ and to draw others to Him?
The first thing we need to understand is that Christ relates to families. He draws families to Him. Parents, the first people that you can draw to Christ are your children—by having them baptised, instructing them, drawing them into a Christian community, such as here at St Aidan’s, showing them that you love them and Christ loves them. Children, you too can draw your parents and friends to Christ by showing them that you love them and Christ loves them. We can each draw people to Christ within our own homes, with our own prayers. Whatever our ages or family situation Christ comes to us and says, “Follow me,”—not necessarily follow me to become a missionary in a foreign country, but follow me home. In other words, parents, to follow Christ, learn enough about the Orthodox Christian faith that you can instruct your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. Children, to follow Christ, listen and learn about Orthodox Christianity, asking questions when you do not understand something and asking your parents and Christ how He wants you to follow Him.
Perhaps some of you are thinking, “I am not worthy or capable to be a disciple of Christ.” I can understand that very well. This is the first sermon I have preached since I became a deacon; and I do not feel worthy to be a deacon. But you as a congregation cried out to me, “Axios! Axios! Axios! He is worthy! He is worthy! He is worthy.” What I wanted to say back to you as a congregation, then and now, is: “You are worthy! You are worthy! You are worthy!” Indeed, it is only if each of you, adults and children, become convinced that you are worthy to be called by Our Lord Jesus Christ, then, and only then, I truly become worthy, because I become your servant, your deacon, as you realize that you can be called by Christ.
An anonymous early church father writing on this calling of the first disciples has reflected that Christ saw these fisherman “not bodily but spiritually, regarding not their appearance but their hearts.” Christ chose them not because they were already His disciples, but as the Church father phrases it, “because they could become [His] disciples… The Lord, upon seeing [these fishermen] does not choose their works but their hearts.” It is the same with each of us. Christ calls us as disciples not because of what we have done or what we have already learned of Him, but because of what we are capable of doing, because of what our hearts desire, because of what we are capable of learning of the life of Christ.
When I was in the midst of my university studies on teaching English as a Foreign Language, I attended a class in which most of the students, myself included, were rather mediocre. Yet this class of less than ten people produced an incredible number of academic papers, bonded together as friends and learned a great deal. At the end of the course, I said privately to the Israeli teacher who had become a friend: “How did this happen? This class was one of the weakest I have attended at this university, yet these students achieved more than any other class. How?” He replied, “You don’t know?” “No,” I said, ” I don’t understand.”
He continued, “Do you think this class had competent students in it?” “No,” I said, “we were the most incompetent group of students I have ever seen.” “Yes,” he said, “You are right. You were all incompetent, but I treated you as if you were very competent; and therefore, you learned how to behave as outstanding students. You met my expectations.” “Oh,” I said, “Yes, I can see that was what happened.”
And that is precisely what happens to each of us in our hearts, because Christ treats us as His future disciples not as who we are now, but as unique persons who can each become His disciples.”
Now how we are each called is a personal matter. We do not need to see a blinding light and hear a voice telling us what to do. A few years ago, one of the discerning lecturers at a Protestant seminary noticed that some students were bragging to others about how they were hearing directions from the Lord about what they should do with their lives, while those who were not receiving what charismatic Christians call “words from the Lord” were becoming depressed by the fact that they were not receiving so-called “direct divine guidance.”
The seminary lecturer pointed out to all of the students that the only people who needed such “words” (possibly from the Lord) were those who were making mistakes and were not doing what Our Lord Jesus Christ had in mind. Those who were moving ahead in their lives, trying in their hearts to follow Our Lord Jesus Christ did not need so-called “words from the Lord” because they were already following Our Lord Jesus Christ; and Christ did not need to give them any special instructions.
Certainly, that was what happened when Sylvia and I were called into the Orthodox Church in 1993. We went together to Vespers and were impressed by the depth and simplicity of the worship, by the presence of Christ and by the power of the Psalms. My reaction was not entirely rational, but honest. I thought, “I’ll have to become Orthodox before I die, but how am I going to convince Sylvia to become Orthodox with me?” I just kept quiet. I didn’t say anything to anybody. A week later, Sylvia woke up at night, and said. “I’ve been praying”—she prays a lot at night—and she said to me, “I think we should become Orthodox!” I said immediately, “What a good idea! I’ve been thinking that for one week!” And so, soon after, we became Orthodox Christians together at the Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity in Kansas City.
To conclude, in this congregation and in every Orthodox Church, we are each called to become disciples of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray for ourselves and for each other that we have the courage to respond to that call to become disciples as quickly as Simon and Andrew and James and John. We are each called NOW to do the work that Our Lord Jesus Christ sets before us, in our families, in the local church, in the local community and in the world.